Review: The Secret Speech by Tom Rob Smith

the-secret-speech-tom-rob-smith5 of 5 stars

Leo Demidov 2

My version:
Fiction Thriller, Soviet Union
Simon & Schuster

The Soviet Union 1956: after Stalin’s death, a violent regime is beginning to fracture. Stalin’s successor Khrushchev pledges reform. But there are forces at work that are unable to forgive or forget the past.

Leo Demidov, former MGB officer, is facing his own turmoil. His adopted daughters have yet to forgive him for his part in the brutal murder of their parents. They are not alone. Leo, his wife, and their family are in grave danger from someone with a grudge. Someone transformed beyond recognition into the perfect model of vengeance. Leo’s desperate mission to save his family will take him to the harsh Siberian Gulags, to the depths of the criminal underworld, to the centre of the Hungarian uprising – and into a hell where redemption is as brittle as glass.

It’s a tricky one, books like these. Do you (or should you say you) enjoy(ed) it, as some do on cover? Or should you describe it as ‘exciting,’ as they do on the cover? That, after reading this and books on the whole Soviet era in Russia, is almost, well, it does seem like you’re denigrating what was a real life or death struggle for survival, to entertainment. Entertainment is of course what you, at least in part, read books for, but also to educate yourself, surely. I do anyway. Hopefully, the more people who think that way and read books like this, the (perhaps) less chance there is of this sort of regime happening again. It is happening at the moment. Think North Korea, that’s the closest in terms of official ideology, we have today. But a similar type of ideology, exists in many Middle Eastern states. The ones who aren’t Israel. You know what I’m saying.

It moves along at a good pace, but never misses a chance to give you room to start thinking. It’s perhaps not as immediately attention grabbing as Child 44 and I can well see that it won’t sell so many copies, though it does deserve to. But it’s more than just another slice of the Child 44 bacon and it’s certainly not Child 44 ‘light.’ I think, all things considered and a week or so after I’ve finished it, that it’s better than Child 44. Maybe because I know/knew the characters now, I’m in tune with their motivations and can understand their predicaments. I’ve read a fair few books on this period, but if you’re new to it, Child 44 and this one, swiftly followed by William Ryan’s books, will start you on the right path.

The main themes are about plain, good old-fashioned survival. From day to day, from hour to hour. About how suspicion is set off from doubt, how doubt breeds suspicion. About how to even stop yourself from seeing things. About the survival of the fittest. Russia of this period trumpeted everything as being for the good of The State, of self sacrifice for the good of Socialism and ‘the people.’ But it was really about the individual being isolated, even isolating themselves, in order to survive. If someone you knew, was arrested because someone else denounced them, that was more or less it, for them. Purely being arrested was proof enough of their guilt. Suspicion of guilt, was guilt. Then, their colleagues and friends and family were investigated. Unless you were a favourite of someone higher up, that was pretty much it for you as well. And so on… So you had to isolate yourself and not see what you couldn’t often avoid seeing. You had to try and not stand out, not do selfless things for the good of the state, just incase the wind blew and the good of the state under Stalin, suddenly made you an enemy of the state under Khrushchev the morning after.

It’s brutal and harsh. Perhaps best describes as interesting in the extreme, heading towards fascination. I have more respect for the Russians, the people lower down the food chain, who survived this period now, after having read these books, than I did before. They were just people like you and me. They had the same hopes and wishes and dreams as you and me. They didn’t deserve this, they didn’t deserve their revolution that was supposed to set them free, to enslave them in an even worse way. They sure as fuck don’t deserve the slow creep back that’s happening today under Putin.

You can buy The Secret Speech from The Book Depository

Related reviews on Speesh Reads:

Child 44The Bloody Meadow

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